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Why Divine Nine Teachers Matter

How five TFA educators in Black Greek-letter organizations are helping students thrive with pride.

February 14, 2024

Alexzandria Cormier-Hill

Alexzandria Cormier-Hill

If you’ve had Black teachers, there’s a good chance at least one may have been a member of a historically Black Greek-letter organization in the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), also known as the Divine Nine. These sororities and fraternities are often known for their vibrant colors, distinct calls, and signature strolls. But it’s their deep commitment to scholarship, camaraderie, and service that have left indelible marks on our society, including education.

Many educators, including Teach For America corps members and alums, bring those values and their NPHC affinity into the classroom to help motivate and inspire their students.

We talked to five TFA corps members and alumni educators who are NPHC members to see how their organization’s values have helped them cultivate excellence, community, and pride in the classroom.  

Demonstrating Pride and Unity

From Martin Luther King Jr. and Mary McLeod Bethune to Colin Kaepernick and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, prominent NPHC members have been a beacon of inspiration for decades. Our teachers continue to help young people develop positive personal and collective pride.

As Duval County Public School’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, Calethia Murray-McKinney (Jacksonville '20) displays her love for Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. motto, “Greater service, Greater progress". It’s evident to her students, especially when she wears her jacket. “They feel the accountability when I wear my letters,” she says. “As my school’s Teacher of the Year, they sense my pride. They see how I carry myself. They know Ms. Mckinney goes above and beyond for them and for myself. They see how they follow in my footsteps or make their own path.”

Jacquinta Nelson’s students continue to blaze their own path, which she attributes in part to their being introduced to NPHC early. Jacquinta (Kansas City '23) couldn’t be happier. “I just had a past student call for a reference letter [for a sorority],” she says. “They call me anytime. My relationship with my kids is for a lifetime. I want to see them grow in every capacity.”

While vivid colors, calls, and strolls attract students, Sophia Kondilas (New Jersey '23) emphasizes that unity and community are the most important aspects of NPHC. “We show them other important things that come with being a part of our organizations. I’m a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. The principal is a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.,” she says. “We came up with a unity stroll and other AKAs, Deltas, SGRhos, and Zetas joined us. My students ask, ‘Can you show me a little stroll?’ I respond, ‘After you come to community service with me.’

Ala'handro Harris and his fellow members of NPHC showing Greek unity.

Setting Great Expectations

Standing with your brothers and sisters, especially in the midst of adversity, is an integral part of the Divine Nine experience. To help students overcome their challenges, Ala’handro Harris (Memphis '22) leverages the power of community while Bryanna Shaw (Greater New Orleans '22) and Jacquinta set standards for excellence that help their students shine.

"In my classroom," Ala’handro reflects, "we embrace a 'Culture of Error.' They don’t laugh at mistakes; they know it’s okay because they have a friend to help. When students miss key concepts, it's beautiful to see how they rally together, building on each other's knowledge."

Students build and support each other, helping them to excel in academics and confidence. Ala’handro recalls students' hesitancy at the beginning of the year. “They were afraid to ask questions. Now, they're putting the responsibility on each other to do well. It’s more student-led. They think more deeply about concepts and real-life situations. You can feel the love–it’s been the driver this year.”

Bryanna makes sure grades are good before anyone sets foot in her the afterschool step team she started. Students must maintain a certain GPA to participate. 

“I let my students know when they get to college, they may have a job or be a part of different organizations. They’ll have to know how to manage their time,” she says. "I’m preparing them for the future. Some say ‘That’s too much!’ Others are like, ‘I don't want to be kicked off the team!’ If they want to be a part of the step team, they have to make time for their education.”

Jacquinta empowers her students to face challenges by leading by example. “I first have to demonstrate excellence. I'm currently in college myself getting my masters in education through TFA. I don't play games with my education,” she says.

After being kicked out of school in 8th grade over something she didn’t do, she’s doubled down on her academics. “If I can juggle all of this and still maintain excellence, my kids can do the same thing. A part of being a part of these organizations is being transparent and vulnerable.”

Exposing Students to Excellence

From national figures to local superheroes, NPHC’s influence on the past and present is all around us. To help students see themselves in leadership roles and develop their leadership skills, Jacquinta, Calethia, and Sophia are exposing their students to NPHC movers and shakers.

Jacquinta positions her students for real life interactions with people of influence. “One of our students currently goes to church with me frequently,” she said. “At a local church in the city, there was Senator Emmanuel Cleaver. I told her his name and she Googled him to find out who was in the room with her.”

Calethia knows the significance of introducing students to positive role models, especially at a school that predominantly educates students of color. “We have a Meet The Greeks event in February. Students will have the opportunity to meet people from different NPHC organizations in person,” she said. “This gives students something to look forward to when they get into college or even the high school junior leagues.”

Sophia finds simple ways to show her students that greatness is multifaceted and close to home. “We have a D9 board for Black History Month with pictures of our founders and various people they can find on the internet,” she says. “We have educators in our building who are a part of these organizations. It’s cool seeing them walk by and say, ‘Oh, that's Ms. Thomas! I see you, Ms. K! There goes Mr. Jackson!’ They're starting to grasp that it's much bigger than just the outfit.”

“We have educators in our building who are a part of these organizations. It’s cool seeing them walk by and say, ‘Oh, that's Ms. Thomas!' They're starting to grasp that it's much bigger than just the outfit.”

Sophia Kondilas

New Jersey Corps Member 2023

Finding Comfort in Community

Through communal efforts, NPHC members work together to uplift and advocate for their communities, both within and beyond the campus environment. And in these classrooms, teachers and students continue the legacy of care as everyone looks after each other–the true essence of NPHC.

Ala’handro reflects on the ways his students lead with empathy through social-emotional learning. “One of the students decided to make a paper where if you’re not feeling okay, you tear off a piece of it and put it in our jar,” he says. “At the end of the day, every day, we always come to the back table for a community meeting and check in with each other. Many of them are giving their time or volunteering to help grade. They take the lead and do something to help us all out as a collective.”

Bryanna’s students are also stepping up to the plate to foster belonging for others, especially among the step team. “The way they’ve built this community is more than I imagined,” she says. “For example, one girl needed more confidence in herself. She joined the step team and became close friends with girls in the program–girls she wouldn’t necessarily hang out with outside of the program. Their sense of belonging empowers them to be part of each other's lives.”

The influence of the Divine Nine runs deep. The Brown vs Board of Education ruling that dismantled legal school segregation was spearheaded by Thurgood Marshall, a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Black History Month was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson, a distinguished member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Zora Neale Hurston are not only literary scholars and activists, but they’re also members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority. 

In classrooms across the nation, educators from the Divine Nine continue their ancestors’ legacies by shaping generations through their passion for culture, excellence, pride, and unwavering dedication. We can’t wait to see how their lessons and interactions continue to uplift students in the classroom and beyond.

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